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The Great Camel Experiment
When Jerry, 'Ship Of The Desert' Sails To Grantsville, Dromedary Goes From Folklore Status To Fact
Hal Schindler
Published: 01/02/1994 Category: Features Page: D1

Legends are wonderful. Most Utahns have heard of the Bear Lake monster, an Americanized version of Nessie of Loch Ness. But not too many know of Jerry, the Arabian camel.

In September 1936, Charles Kelly, a Western history buff of the first magnitude, was adding to his research notes on the Hastings Cutoff to California (his book Salt Desert Trails had been published a few years earlier) and he had occasion to talk to William Carter,--an early Grantsville, Tooele County, resident. During the conversation, Carter's wife mentioned a dromedary that chased two frightened horses into Grantsville one Sunday in the early 1900s. She could recall no particular date.

"The camel seemed tame," Kelly jotted in his notebook. "Mrs. Carter says the school children rode it and she rode it in a July 24th parade. It later wandered off and was not seen again. It did not appear to be a young animal. They called it Jerry." Kelly made no further mention of the camel, perhaps chalking the story off as folklore. But there is another possible answer; for Jerry, "a ship of the desert," was not the first such sighting in the parched hinterlands of Nevada.

Reports cropped up from time to time in those days and as a matter of record, the Nevada legislature had taken the trouble to pass a law in February of 1875 prohibiting camels and dromedaries from running at large on public roads in the state. The act was repealed in 1899.

The business with camels had its impetus about 1850 with the California gold rush in full swing, and thousands of emigrants jamming the overland trails for a chance to settle in the land of milk and honey (and mayhaps find a lump or two of placer gold in the bargain). The Isthmus of Panama was choked with rushers who opted to steam to California. Still twenty years in the future was the transcontinental railroad, and the U.S. military was struggling with the knotty problem of protecting its real estate in the Southwest and lower California acquired in the war with Mexico.*

How to move people and provisions through hostile Indian country and supply the forts spreading through Southern California and the Southwest? That was the question. Pack mules and ox trains were barely adequate in the desert regions. And so was born the Great Camel Experiment. The military had first toyed with the notion in 1836, but it wasn't until 1848 that a recommendation came to import a few camels in a test of their worth on the American frontier.

Horses are not native to America, but they flourished after being introduced by the Spanish Conquistadors in 1540. There is evidence that camels may have been brought to America by a Virginia slave trader in 1701 and to Jamaica about the same time. U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis proposed a military camel corps as early as 1855, but the American Southwest was not the Sahara and there was no Lawrence of Arabia on the horizon.

Still, if there was money to be made in such a venture, the private sector would eagerly pursue it. And so it did, in the form of the American Camel Company, a short-lived New York speculation which sputtered briefly in 1855, before expiring. The Army then budgeted $30,000 to "purchase and import camels and dromedaries for the military." One David Dixon Porter visited England and was encouraged to seek British Army opinion of camels. He also studied the animals at the London Zoo.

Ultimately, Porter with Major Henry C. Wayne arranged for shipping thirty-three Arabian camels from Smyrna to Indianola, Texas, in May 1856. A second drove of forty-four animals arrived the following year. Major Wayne was ordered to transfer the camels to San Antonio, and there to turn them over to a retired U.S. Navy lieutenant, Edward F. Beale, who had served for several years as Superintendent of Indian Affairs in California. It was he who brought the first California gold east and he had explored Death Valley with Kit Carson. Beale was a believer in camels for use in the Western deserts.

Secretary of War John B. Floyd, successor to Davis after the election of 1856, ordered a wagon route surveyed from Fort Defiance, New Mexcio, to the Colorado River, and Lt. Beale was his choice for the task, with collateral orders to test the dromedaries as pack animals at the same time. Thus to Lt. Edward F. Beale fell the honor of being the first and last commander of the U.S. Camel Corps.

It was during the transfer to San Antonio that Major Wayne overheard a number of grizzled Texans comment with some cynicism on the camels; allowing that they would have a bleak future in the United States. They "walked funny" and didn't look as if they could tote much. Wayne ordered a kneeling dromedary to be loaded with two bales of hay, each weighing 300 pounds--more than triple what a prime mule could pack. The onlookers murmured in disbelief. "That hoss will never stand with that load." At the major's signal, two additional bales were cinched to the beast's pack saddle--the total: 1,256 pounds! "Impossible! Not a chance in h---!. Cain't be done!"

Wayne nudged the camel, which obediently lurched upright and strode off with the load. The crowd broke into cheers. The dromedaries had won their first supporters. When the grand experiment was over, Beale would prove camels could carry enormous loads--some up to a ton--walk forty miles in a day for as many as eight to ten days without water over barren country. They could swim--and did, across the Colorado--and function in sand or snow. Their drivers swore "camels would get fat where a jackass would starve to death."

On the strength of Beale's report, Secretary Floyd recommended the purchase of 1,000 dromedaries for the U.S. Army--but the clouds of Civil War were gathering, and the Experiment abandoned.

So what has all this to do with Jerry, the Grantsville camel? Well, Beale had turned over twenty-eight government dromedaries to the California Quartermaster in 1861. The Camel Corps story spread throughout the West (in this century, Hollywood would treat this historical footnote dramatically in "Southwest Passage" in 1954 and as a comedy in "Hawmps" in 1976.) The California and Utah Camel Association bought some Army animals in 1859 and sold them at auction to a company in Esmeralda County, Nevada, which employed them to carry salt from a marsh there to a silver mill in Washoe County some 200 miles distant.

The dromedaries didn't receive the same understanding care as they had in the Army and suffered from the high alkali content in the region. Neglected by teamsters, some camels died, others ran off into the desert and still others were sold to mine owners in Arizona to haul ore. It was said a party of Frenchmen had rounded up twenty to thirty camels near Tucson, broke them to pack, and sold them in Virginia City, where a visiting Yale professor reported seeing camels in 1865.

Within a decade, the animals had become enough of a nuisance on wagon roads to result in the previously mentioned legislative act prohibiting them to wander at large on Nevada's public roads. For years, there were scattered reports of camels seen in various parts of the Southwest and Nevada, and even remote areas of Utah. Those reports usually were accompanied by claims that the "escaped circus animals" were frightening horses, mules and teamsters--the teamsters, in turn, would open fire in the face of such "vicious creatures." Fortunately, the residents of Grantsville, were more curious than terrified when Jerry, the camel, visited their town.


*This sentence may need clarification as to the U.S. acquisition of California. Lower California is a term generally used for Baja California which is in the possession of Mexico. The U.S. acquisition was upper (Alta) California.

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